Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: The Albuquerque Journal, in conjunction with KOAT-TV and KKOB radio, continues “The Literacy Project,” a yearlong initiative aimed at shining a spotlight on New Mexico’s literacy challenges.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
On the day the governor announced Kurt Steinhaus as the new head of public education for New Mexico, the lifelong educator with decades of experience in teaching, policy and reform, vowed to make this “the year of literacy.”
What the former Los Alamos Public Schools superintendent was talking about was his ambitious plans to improve literacy rates among students — not just reading but also in math, science, and arts — to eventually move the state away from its longtime, dismal position of 49th in the country with little change over 20 years.
The new secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department recently sat down with the Journal in his Santa Fe offices and outlined those plans in a wide-ranging interview.
His objectives include significantly boosting student achievement and well-being, better and more transparent assessment of their skills, identifying and adopting what has worked elsewhere, more classroom time for students, substantially increasing teacher salaries and making New Mexico a preferred place where teachers want to be.
Steinhaus, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in Educational Leadership and Organizational Learning, said it’s crucial to create buy-in and support from parents, teachers, their unions, legislative and tribal leaders, business groups, and all those working to improve literacy already, as well as students.
And Steinhaus said he wants literacy to be the cornerstone of his tenure at PED.
Journal: Why did you choose literacy as a primary focus at PED?
Steinhaus: It’s a theme that puts a whole set of energy around the good work that’s already happening. There are literally hundreds of literacy initiatives across New Mexico, many of them dependent upon volunteers. I wanted to honor them. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. … I can’t think of more rewarding volunteer work than to help someone learn to read — whether it’s a child or an adult. During this Year of Literacy, I urge every New Mexican to find time to help just one person learn to read or share a love of books with someone.
Journal: You said the issue is very personal to you.
Steinhaus: My brother has Down syndrome. … There’s probably 50 steps that he goes through in learning that usually happen with the snap of your fingers with other people.
I’ll give you a concrete example. When I was 12 or 13, I was trying to teach my brother the word smell. And I thought, how can I do this? I opened the refrigerator door and I tried to show him some things that smelled, and I took a bottle of barbecue sauce and held it up to his nose and I said BQ. And from that point on to this day, he is 56 years old, he uses the word BQ for smell.
If you look at the science of reading, phonemic awareness, associating sounds with symbols is the first step. I watched him learn how to read and helped him learn how to read.
Another thing that’s very important is intrinsic motivation. … He lives in a group home in Albuquerque and he wanted some freedom, just like most people do. He didn’t have a driver’s license, he never will. And on his own he figured out how to read the bus schedule for the city of Albuquerque. … He knew that if he could read that bus schedule, he could get around town. …
The other thing that’s so important about reading is the child is getting that warm feeling of sitting with an adult, mom or dad or grandparent, and reading. This is a lifeline. If you look at the research, the feelings they get, not the instruction on reading, but the feelings they get sitting and listening to a book being read to them, is something that makes them a better reader. And that’s another motivator.
Journal: What are your goals and ideas for transforming and improving New Mexico’s education system?
Steinhaus: In the long run, I want New Mexico to become the fastest growing state in the country in three areas. … The first one is in staff and student well-being, sometimes they call it social, emotional learning, SEL. So I want us to be the fastest growing state in the country in making sure kids come to school and feel good at school, but not just the kids, but also the staff. …
The second area I want us to be fastest growing in the country is in student achievement. And yes, we will test and we will measure and we will report the data on student achievement. And I would like it to be in all curriculum areas. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are so important, but so are social studies, science, music and the arts.
And the third area that I’d like us to be number one in the country as far as growth, is being the place that educators choose to come because salaries, benefits and working conditions are competitive with our neighbors. I want us to have a higher average salary than Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arizona. … If you take the average salary for those surrounding states, and add $5,000, there’s your number.
(Currently, the minimum teacher salary in New Mexico is $41,000 a year, and the average teacher salary is $50,000 a year.)
Journal: What are some of your more immediate goals?
Steinhaus: I want to make sure that federal money from the ARP/ESSER funds (American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) are used for student learning, and literacy, of course, is a part of that. … That’s $1.3 billion across the entire state for three years. I would like districts and schools to use federal relief funding to close the digital divide in New Mexico, whether that’s by providing students with devices or providing them with access in any way possible. I also favor spending it on culturally and linguistically responsive teaching materials, such as books and videos, both to meet the requirements of the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit and because the best way to motivate children to learn is with materials that fit what they know about the world. I would advise districts not to use ARP/ESSER funds for recurring expenses, since this is likely one-time money.
Journal: There has been less emphasis on standardized student testing in recent years. How do you intend to measure student improvement and proficiency? Will this information be made public by the schools, and do you support it being tied to teacher evaluations?
Steinhaus: We have a statewide assessment that’s currently being evaluated to see if that’s useful. So we do plan to measure. … As a (former) school superintendent, the most useful evaluation is the teacher in the classroom with the kid. When people talk about measuring success, quite often that doesn’t get listed, but it’s extremely important. So we’re going to listen to teachers about what’s working and what’s not working. That’s a different kind of assessment. …
The second piece I wanted to talk about I call short cycle assessments. That’s checking in at the beginning, middle and end of the year. As a school superintendent, we used several different kinds of short cycle assessments in reading that the teacher selected, and when the teacher selects it, and they think it’s a valid assessment, guess what? They’re fine with it being used as a part of their teacher evaluation. So I want to involve our teachers in selecting an assessment that is valid and standardized.
(Asked if the results of those student assessments will be made public by the school systems, Steinhaus said, “of course.”)
As a teacher, every year, depending on what kind of teacher you are, you get a different group of students. So if my assessment for this year is based on that group of students, and then next year I get a group of students that’s at a completely different level, is my assessment going to be bad next year because the students were at a different level? That’s where you get the controversy with teachers. I do believe that accountability and using data to assess teachers is a part of what we’re going to be doing.
If you’re asking are we going to give a statewide standardized test, the same test to every kid in New Mexico, and then take the results of that test and make it the teacher evaluation? That is not conducive to building a system that helps our teachers succeed with our kids.
Journal: New Mexico’s public schools currently have a school year that translates to about 180 days. Many people believe that students in other countries outperform American students because school systems in those countries have a longer school year. The Legislature actually provided money for the Extended Learning Time Program and the K-5 Plus program, but few school districts in New Mexico took advantage of it.
Steinhaus: In June of this year, as superintendent in Los Alamos, we ran an extra 15 days. The morning was core instruction, but the afternoon was swimming and field trips and activities. And they were learning and it was built into the curriculum. That success of allowing districts to customize it and have flexibility is my plan to get more learning days for New Mexico kids. …
I think what the Legislature has funded is a good number for right now, which is 10 days extra for the ELTP Extended Learning Time program, and then another 15 for K-5 Plus. I think that’s a good start.
Journal: As you move forward, what stakeholders do you intend to engage with?
Steinhaus: I have talked to lots of groups, including our chambers, our business leaders in New Mexico, the teachers and the leadership of the unions. When I was a school superintendent, I had a very constructive, positive, useful relationship with our union and we worked well together.
I am also going to be listening to students and talking to them. … I have been holding introductory meetings with legislators. (Recently) I was up in Taos, in front of the Legislative Finance Committee, and gave them an update on where we are headed. We don’t have our public school support recommendations done yet, but we’re working on them.
(Steinhaus said his list of stakeholders also includes tribal leaders, school superintendents, charter school directors and the New Mexico School Boards Association. And, he noted, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on board with his focus on literacy.)
Journal: What’s the best way to deal with the problem of chronic student absenteeism — what used to be called truancy and often cited by teachers as an ongoing problem?
Steinhaus: Kids need to show up because it matters and we need to help them understand why they need to show up to school. The second part is reaching out to the parents. In fact, we just had a meeting here talking about our Parent Advisory Council and parent engagement, and the parents understanding the importance of (kids) showing up to school. …
And then, working with teachers. If I can talk again as a school superintendent, last year in the middle of a pandemic, we formed a team and we met every other day, and had a list of kids who were not showing up to school. And we called them, we reached out to them, we took food to their homes, we sent them emails, we sent them text messages. We went way above and beyond to connect with the families to get the kids to come to school. And that’s what it takes. It’s just a lot of hard work. …
The other trick is finding just one thing that the kid’s passionate about. Is it music, football or debate class? Or is it just being at school with their friends? That’s why in-person school is so important. It helps with those kids who have one thing they’re interested in.
Journal: What is your position on the value of charter schools?
Steinhaus: They play a useful and important role in New Mexico. That being said, we have to be thoughtful about the impact it has on the rest of the schools and the community. If it impacts funding in a negative way, we’ll have to sit down and look and see if that’s being helpful or if it’s getting in the way.
Journal: Many of the comments the Journal has received in connection with its Literacy Project were about social promotion. Some said under no circumstances should a student be passed to the next grade if he or she is not performing at the appropriate level, while others said there’s no point in holding back a kid, particularly older kids. Instead, maybe steer them into vocational programs. What are your thoughts?
Steinhaus: The most important thing I want to say about literacy is every child is different. … Everybody learns to read differently. My experience as a school superintendent is to take it one child at a time.
There’s a whole series of things we can do … and that’s what I’m going to push for. The first one is to have conversations between the teacher and the child. The second one is to engage the parents.
The the next one is, I call it a wellness check, is where we bring together all the adults that see that kid, and we sit down and say, how’s it going? And out of that wellness check the next thing we might do is assign a SAT, a Student Assistance Team, to that child. If that’s not working, there’s other levels of interventions that we can do and the intervention is going to be different, depending on the kid.
Journal: New Mexico is ranked 48th in the nation in child poverty. Research shows that poverty leads to disparities in reading and language development. Additionally, 75% of people incarcerated have low literacy levels and did not complete high school. It would seem that there is a strong correlation among these factors.
Steinhaus: Let’s be really careful here. Poverty is separate from literacy. You can look at the data and draw a correlation, but I would argue that no matter what your situation is, you can learn to read if you’ve got one adult who’s with you every day asking you how are you doing? Are you getting food? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting sleep? If there’s just one adult with every kid, I don’t care what their economic condition is, they can learn to be great readers. And I’ve seen that happen across New Mexico.
Journal: You formerly worked for the PED developing a state technology plan, a position that later steered you to employment at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Will you have an opportunity to use your lab connections to advance literacy in New Mexico?
Steinhaus: The literacy engine is volunteers, and our national labs at Sandia and Los Alamos support their employees to volunteer in schools. So that’s one part of it. But the other part of it is, when you hear the word literacy, most people think reading. My definition for literacy includes fluency with mathematics and to be able to speak. One word that you don’t hear in the definition of literacy that’s in my definition is listening. That’s a part of being literate. Los Alamos National Laboratory has experts in not only the sciences, but also in human behavior, so we can look to them for help.
Assistant city editor Mike Murphy contributed to this report.